Leadership & Management

Thasunda Brown Duckett on Making Change Through the “Art of Possibility”

The CEO of TIAA discusses her lifelong sense of purpose and progress in this View From The Top episode.

July 29, 2021

| by Kelsey Doyle

“Progress is not going in a straight line. It goes up and down, but it’s progress all the same.”

In this View From The Top interview, Thasunda Brown Duckett, president and CEO of TIAA, recalls her childhood experience moving from New York to Texas in a car packed with everything her parents and two siblings owned and why she knew from a young age that she had the power to make progress. In her conversation with Adriann Negreros, MBA ’21, Duckett talks about how to change social inequities by believing in “the art of possibility.”

“I think that it’s important that when we are in positions of power, that we understand the platform and that we understand that it’s more than just delivering on the financial results,” Duckett says. “It is about shaping a culture, it is about using our voice to make real progress in our country, and I think that’s good for business, it’s good for community, but it’s also, for me, why I believe I’m in this seat.”

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund. During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Full Transcript

Thasunda Brown Duckett: And I just think it’s important to make sure that we model what it means to see everyone. Not just in the big town halls, not just in the employee appreciation notes, but in what we do and how we do it. And taking the time to engage with those furthest removed is what really embodies culture and what I try to do every day. See the unseen and see the people that really help build your company.

Adriann Negreros: Welcome to View From The Top podcast. That was to Thousand Brown Duckett, CEO of TIAA. Thasunda visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of the View From The Top — a speaker series, where students like me, sit down to interview business leaders from around the world. I’m Adriann Negreros, an MBA student of the class of 2021.

This year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Duckett from her home office in New York. She shared stories of financial equity and health, how you rent your title and own your character, and the need to lead with kindness. You’re listening to me from the top, the podcast. Wow, Thasunda. That’s quite a resume there, and welcome and thank you for joining us.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Thank you so much, it’s a privilege.

Adriann Negreros: I woke up on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, and was thinking do I go to the gym or not? You on the other hand, woke up on a Saturday few weeks ago, and you were the CEO of TIAA.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Absolutely.

Adriann Negreros: And we’re just feeling tons of gratitude for this conversation right now, and I hope you’ve had a chance to celebrate, let it all sink in a little bit and, again, thank you for the work you’re doing. It’s an incredible organization impacting folks that really are the backbone of everything we have here in the country.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Absolutely.

Adriann Negreros: And the success, it doesn’t come alone though, right? Dean Levin mentioned Otis and Rosy Brown.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah.

Adriann Negreros: And you said you were on the shoulders of giants way back when during that move from the East Coast over to Texas. How did Otis and Rosie make this all happen?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Well, again, it’s such a privilege to have the honor to speak with all of you and you know you’re right, Adriann, when I woke up on that Saturday I probably did not get to the gym, but I will say that I woke up and continued to be full of gratitude. And you can’t have the moment of being a CEO of a company like TIAA without being reflective. And that brings me to your question, when you think about Otis and Rosie Brown, they are my anchor, you know they are my roots. And when I think about what they mean to me, my dad taught me to reach for the moon.

And he would say, you know even if you miss you would be among the stars. And I am still reaching for that moon. My mom would always tell me whatever you do, you do it with excellence or you don’t do it at all, no matter what it is. And so those just life lessons along the way, not just what they said but what they embodied, what they embody but what I saw growing up and all the sacrifices, it’s all of that that allows me to be in the seat that I am today. And again, being on the shoulders of my parents and so many others before me, has me full of gratitude and a lot of humility.

Adriann Negreros: Absolutely and there were ton of sacrifices for your parents right you told a story about driving with your car five you packed in there.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah.

Adriann Negreros: Everything you own in that car so that says something, right?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: No, it does I mean when you think about it, I’m first generation integration. And it seems so long ago when we talk about the course of our society. My dad grew up in the segregated south in Louisiana, my mother grew up in Alabama, they met in New York, but when we moved to Texas, my parents packed everything that we owned. So it was three children, my mom and my dad and everything that we owned, which is you can imagine in a car that’s not much.

And I always say that was a real moment because when I think about it, I started my life in Texas sitting on crates. And when you think about where you’ve been, and you think about where you are, you can’t help but think through those moments, and I think it’s important that we are okay talking about those moments because the reality is it’s those moments that anchor us, it’s those moments that teach us empathy or humility, it’s those moments that showed us grit and tenacity. And so we meet and I’ve met so many amazing people along the way. But the real lessons come from those everyday people and for me, that was Otis and Rosie Brown when I think about their sacrifice and trying to do the very best that they could to provide for us, even in moments their best was not sufficient, it was their very best, and I’m forever grateful for that.

Adriann Negreros: I’m sure they’re extremely proud of you and you said it yourself, right? You can’t forget some of these folks that are making the sacrifices. You’ve said when you’re on the 50th floor at J.P Morgan Chase.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yes.

Adriann Negreros: It’s the people that are in the mail room.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yes.

Adriann Negreros: It’s the cooks that crack the ceiling, right?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yes, a lot of times people say well, what do you mean? And again, being anchored in history. And when you think about when and how did my melanin my complexion enter corporate America, it entered through the halls of janitors and cooks and secretaries. That was the first introduction to our brilliance. I would say to everyone, when I would look on the 50th floor and I see Rockefeller I would say, he couldn’t imagine me being the face to his bank, having the privilege to lead the consumer bank but you have to give homage to those who did not have these amazing rented titles, but they showed up with strong character. They showed up with a level of excellence. They showed up when they weren’t really being seen. And so when I think about where I am today, I think about those cooks and those janitors that was just putting cracks in the ceiling, that over time, I could exist, and so many people like me could exist. And so, I have a lot of respect to those who’ve come before me that were in roles that truly paved the way.

Adriann Negreros: And I’m sure your leadership is unnoticed by them, right? You literally pulled stores where you go down the mail room and says —

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah.

Adriann Negreros: It all starts here, right?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Absolutely, look, when I think about Otis Brown or when I think about so many people, specifically people of color, many times we are disproportionately in those lower wage jobs or we are in those entry level jobs. And so it does not escape me that when I have an opportunity to be a CEO or to be in a leadership position to make sure I go and see those individuals to make sure that I can talk about the strategy in the role that they play. And so when I would go to the mail room, I would tell the young individuals that when you see us talking about earnings or talking about that client experience, I would say I want you to brush your shoulders off and know that you had a role to play because you started the process.

You have to do your job with excellence when people make their payment in auto to make sure it went to the proper shoot so what so it would post on time. And so by connecting them and understanding that they matter. That they have a voice and that they have a role to play. What I get in return is that the people furthest removed from our results, see their role in our results. And what was so great is after I was telling them how awesome they were I remember one of the gentlemen looked at me and he was like — you’re welcome we got you.

And I just think that is important because that is Otis Bown. My dad worked in the warehouse and he’s brilliant, he didn’t go to college but he’s brilliant and he taught me so much. And I just think it’s important to make sure that we model what it means to see everyone.

Not just in the big town halls, not just in the employee appreciation notes, but in what we do and how we do it. And taking the time to engage with those furthest removed is what really embodies culture and what I try to do everyday. See, be unseen and see the people that really help build your company.

Adriann Negreros: Your leadership is jumping from the screen right now. I don’t want to like cry 10 minutes into this interview. So I think we have a quick video to show how much folks appreciate your leadership.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Oh wow.

Video: Well, I can’t even express it to you. I think it’s one thing to be able to come into this building every Saturday. And we’re so grateful to be here but all these black entrepreneurs are doing so amazing. But you’re the CEO of Chase, like that’s my baby. My God, and it’s just amazing to see that you look like me, and you’re able to do that and have that impact. So thank you.

Adriann Negreros: I know this is viral a couple years ago 2019, but Chloe kills it right then.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah, She is now like my niece. I keep in touch with her. She’s amazing. And you’re right, it went viral, because it was a real human moment. And I think it touched a chord in the art of possibility. When people can see themselves in what it means to be excellent, they can then be reminded that they are worthy and deserving of that same level of excellence. And I think that’s what Chloe and I represented with the beautiful words that she expressed in such a real and human moment and it was really heartfelt. And I think people could relate to it, people can understand it. And I think hopefully, it’s a nod in the right direction of the work we still need to do in corporate America. And I think it’s important because when you look at the stats, right and I know this is a business class, so I have to try a few stats here.

It is Stanford after all, but I was looking at the Fortune 500. And when we talk about all the work, that we do all the initiatives that are out there, we have to be outcome driven. And the reality is there’s only I think, 41 women that are leading a Fortune 500. There are 16 Latin X and there were three African Americans. And so we can talk about all the things that we’re doing, but we have to ask ourselves if we believe that talent is created equally, and opportunity is not, it bears out when you look at the shape and the profile of those who are leading Fortune 500 companies. Which says to me we still have a lot of work to do, and it really I think hits a nerve when you see the video, like Chloe and I having a moment, because it matters and clearly the outcomes are not bearing what we believe and what we aspire to be true as a country.

Adriann Negreros: For sure. I love the stats in the back. I think they ground us. The one that I wanted to mention, since you are very vocal on financial equity and health for everyone, not just leaders.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yes.

Adriann Negreros: Is the median net worth of black single men, women versus black single, white men, and women. I’ll let you share the information, but I think that’s important to return to the numbers, and remember we fight for progress, we want progress, but there’s still some very harrowing statistics out there.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah, and I think when you look at the numbers, it tells us what all we still have to do to make sure that there’s full inclusion and equity for all Americans, and so what you’re referencing is the median net worth of single black men and women are like 200 to 300 dollars versus white men and women, which is around 15 to 28,000 dollars.

And so when you think about that, we have to say what is going on? And we have to take a moment and say what has to change? And what do we do? What are those choke points that we have to unlock? Because clearly as a society, as a human race, we cannot be okay with those statistics and we have to know that we can do better and that surely it cannot be all of the melanin that’s causing these results. It’s not the melanin. There’s something else that’s going on that we have to lead boldly and be provocative about these stats but more importantly be bold about what we can do better to move forward.

Adriann Negreros: As a starting point, maybe you mentioned in a TED talk, right? We just need to talk about money period. And you you told the story money’s personal. There’s a lot of stuff that comes with it when you bring it up in a conversation, but you tell the story right of your dad and the 401k and just the knowledge of knowing that existed perhaps could have changed the financial situation. Right?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah, I mean, when I think about my father and I think about my parents and I think about all the sacrifices that they made for us, and I remember I started graduated from college and I was looking at my dad’s statement and to have to tell your father that you don’t have enough, not even close to be able to retire. And what angered me is that the 401k was for him, but he didn’t see it within himself. So the information or the way in which the information was shared, he didn’t think it was for him. And so when you think about these opportunities and you think about minorities participating in the stock market or understanding the power of compounding. Or you think about the homeownership rates or you think about small businesses, you can go on and on, all of the things that can unlock wealth generational wealth. There’s more to it. The information may be out there. But can people see themselves …are we making it where folks do not have to feel as if I didn’t go to college so it’s not for me. Or this was something that wasn’t discussed, and I don’t want to seem less smart. And so I think the opportunity for us is to really make sure that we tap into not just the information, but how it’s presented. And you’re right. I talked about it in a TED talk, because I said, we have to talk about this without shame or judgment.

No shame, no judgment. It’s not where you start, it’s where you end up. And whether it’s $1 a day or a quarter, just get going and get started because that power of compounding and that behavior over time can really mean the difference when you think about your wealth, but clearly, a lot of times when people see their finances they associate, their financial situation to their self worth. And I like to say your net worth does not define your self worth. And I just think that’s so important and we have to be okay. I like to say, we know how to keep it 100 — especially young people. We have to know how to keep it 700 plus. We have to know how to get started and be okay with where we are, but saying hey, we can make these steps to have a better outcome and a better tomorrow.

Adriann Negreros: Absolutely, it’s a great message. It’s a scary, I think, thought for folks to make that initial plunge.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah.

Adriann Negreros: Hopefully we can get more plus minorities taking the plunge, understanding as you said the power of compounding and hopefully a more financially sound future for them.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Absolutely.

Adriann Negreros: And, beyond financial equity, it’s obviously been a tough year for a lot of different reasons, I don’t wanna just ask about race outright. I think when you were talking to the mayor of Arlington, and I know Arlington’s a super important place for you. You said something actually, it hit me pretty deep, which is extraordinary is kindness.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah.

Adriann Negreros: So if we’re just kinder with each other, more patient, perhaps that’s the starting point to ending some of these tensions which seem to be wrapped up in other things the news likes to highlight.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: No, I think you’re right and I like to say what it means to be extraordinary — your ownable assets, extraordinary is kindness, extraordinary is laughter. I also think extraordinary is doing the work and so many times when we have these conversations particularly around race or inequality, we wanna start in the middle of a chapter. And I think the way in which we can unlock and make real progress is to get proximate with the history. And to really understand the structural inequities, to really understand what it means when you grew up in a segregated South.

To really understand books for school, and the history that we have in our society that has caused so many inequalities. And it’s not again to make people feel bad or shame, but it is to get to the root. In business as you know, in business school, you have to get to the root cause, the root cause, and that’s what you do in business. When you see something, you say, well what is the root cause, the root cause analysis? And so I think that if we can get to the root of the matter and get educated and get proximate. And do it with a headset of kindness, a headset of saying I want what you want. I want my children to breathe just like you want your children to breathe.

I want a full opportunity just like you want a full opportunity, and then we do the work. And I do think that if we work on ourselves and do it with kindness and do it with a level of curiosity then it’s us that become the people in positions of power. It is us that can then be that mom doing this at a school and volunteering and doing the work. It is us, it is humanity that will unlock the progress. Policies and everything else will change when it’s the people that decide that we can do better. And I think kindness is at the heart of everything that we do when you think about progress.

Adriann Negreros: That’s incredible, the people decide, then kindness will be unlocked, everything will follow.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Absolutely. That’s the work, right? That’s the good trouble we have to get into and stay in.

Adriann Negreros: It’s a fight worth fighting, but as you said, it’s not new, there have been many people before us that have engaged in this, we need to learn from those lessons and continue to work forward.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: The thing that I think is so powerful about that is that if we’re honest with ourselves, we have made progress and it is easier than it was for my grandparents. It is easier than it was from those who enslaved into the country, so progress is slow. Progress is not going in a straight line, it goes up and down, but it’s progress all the same. And so I think that it’s important that when we are in positions of power, that we understand the platform. And that we understand that it’s more than just delivering on the financial results. It is about shaping a culture, it is about using our voice to make real progress in our country and I think that’s good for business, it’s good for community, but it’s also for me, why I believe I’m in this seat.

It is to stay in that good trouble and to create that art of possibility so that more people can listen and really see the power that they have but also be rewarded with their hard work and effort. And so progress is slow, but we are making progress and I think we have to stay hopeful. At least I’m hopeful, I have no choice, I have a lot of kids. I have to stay hopeful and believe that they will have better days than I and those before me.

Adriann Negreros: Under your leadership, I’m sure they will know. They’ll be leaders themselves very soon and —

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Absolutely.

Adriann Negreros: Thasunda, I wanna end with a couple questions that are directly for the class of 2021. They have 20 days till they graduate, so we’ll look for some advice from you on a couple different things.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Great.

Adriann Negreros: Amazing, so, firstly folks, they love the titles, the gold plated careers, but as you said earlier, you rent your title and you own your character, right? So what advice and you made this decision for yourself, choosing the right position over money. What advice would you give folks that are perhaps grappling with that decision right now?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Well, I’m glad you brought that point because I do think I want you all to write down and to know that you’ve written your title, you own your character, so you should show what with your ownable assets. And so when you’re thinking about the job and you’re thinking about the opportunity, what I would say is make sure that whatever role you take or whatever position, understand the culture. Understand who you are, understand and know that you have the power to make progress. And I also think that it’s important to make sure that whatever road you travel to stay intellectually curious and even if you take a role that may not be ideal, understand that there’s a lesson in that moment.

There’s a lesson in that journey and so it’s not so much about which job you take or what. Just make sure that whatever you decide, stick with it, take the lesson, and know that I would rather take those lessons getting started. So that when you level up, you’re prepared because you’ve been tested versus running from job to job, the minute it gets a little tougher, you don’t like something, then how are you going to grow? And then how are you going to have a perspective to be able to tell someone else something along the way. So rent your title, own your character. When you think about your role, stay curious, stick with it and think about what’s the lesson that you’re supposed to learn and what is the gift that you’re supposed to give to that environment.

Adriann Negreros: Strong start I like all that advice, I’m gonna follow it myself. How about a mentorship? So you’ve mentioned before…perhaps you don’t learn as much as you think from the person seven levels above you in the C suite, perhaps it’s the people around you that you should be looking for, for the learnings, what did you mean by that?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: My gosh, so the minute we get into corporate America, all of a sudden we’re like, I need these mentors that are already in these big roles. But I like to remind people mentorship is all around you, it’s all around you. And what I mean by that is when you think about who you are, there’s so many facets of you. So how could one person give you that entire get? So I get mentored by my assistant, she shows me the power of service, of how she shows up on my behalf with excellence.

I am mentored by having this opportunity with the youth, the people that are doing amazing things. And so my point is mentorship is all around you, it’s in the history books that you read. It’s in the observations of the youth, it’s in senior leaders as well, but the most important thing, is to understand that if you’re truly trying to hone your skills, then you should hone that skill of not limiting who mentors you, by their rented title. But who is showing up in a way that can teach you something, that can iron your hone your skill set in a way that you can be a better human and I just think mentorship is all around us. You have to just open up your eyes and be willing to receive it in whichever form that it presents itself.

Adriann Negreros: Absolutely, and I think closely on that topic around looking to the folks around you for leadership and for inspiration, your friends and perhaps your partner as well. I think we have a couple pictures to show you, sorry.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: You guys did your work.

Adriann Negreros: I love this — check those comments. The key to a long relationship — flirt with your husband.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: I love it.

Adriann Negreros: I love that. Beth Ford, CEO of Lana Lake said that the most important business decision you make is your partner.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah.

Adriann Negreros: I understand you guys have a wonderful relationship.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: We do.

Adriann Negreros: What advice would you give the MBAs on their friends and if you want their partner selection?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Well, I love this question because so many times when we think about a relationship, you may say, I want him to do this and I want him to do that or this or that for me. But it’s the matters of the heart. And the reality is I have a man who is anchored in character. I have a man who believes that his role is to lighten my load. Who understands that I wanna impact the world. And so as a result, he’s an engineer and a marine but he’s a stay—at—home dad, he runs our family office. I like to say. Buddy, but you know what? I just think it’s about a partnership and it’s about those ownable assets and so whomever you choose to spend your time with whether it’s in life or in friendships. Think about the character, think about the ownable assets, because that’s really what’s going to help you navigate your storms, your ups and your downs. And I’m just incredibly blessed that I have a partner who truly is my partner in life. And most importantly, he’s on this journey to help me be the best version of myself that I can possibly be. And he’s an additive to who I am and being able to unlock all of who I am when it comes to being a mother, a philanthropist, and executive and all the other titles that are part of my portfolio.

Adriann Negreros: That’s incredible. I love to hear that. I think it’s wonderful advice. Find someone additive who supports you who makes you a better person.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Absolutely. Right. Absolutely.

Adriann Negreros: Okay, one more on the career side, and then we’ll get to our final question. So, obviously, you took the new role at TIAA.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yes.

Adriann Negreros: What advice would you give to folks as they make these decisions? Perhaps they love the role they read before but now, opportunity arises, what is kind of your thought process and how do you make those decisions?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah, it’s such a great question because I absolutely loved my prior role. I loved the company, the people, I felt like I still had a lot of runway. But I also believe in the art of possibility, and I believe in getting uncomfortable and clearly, if there was a word to describe 2020, it was uncomfortability. But what was beautiful, is when you sit down in your quiet moments and you ask yourself, are you reaching your highest potential, not from a title perspective, from an impact perspective. And when I realized that I wanted to be open to the art of possibility that maybe I can show up in a way that could be even more impactful.

TIAA came knocking at the door. And now what I can say in hindsight, of course, is that to be able to be the CEO of TIAA — full circle when I think about my parents. To be able to be the first woman, the third African American to make history in so many ways that impact I like to say sometimes we say we were trying to crack the ceiling. Now, I am link forget the ceiling just step outside. Sometimes we just have to get out of our box of comfortability and know that we are we are worthy and deserving and taking a risk is not a risk if your objective is impact. If your objective is something higher than yourself, then you have to be okay with getting uncomfortable and then going for it. Going for it, listen to that quiet voice. Do the work, be prepared. Don’t leave when you’re frustrated or mad. Make sure you have a clear mind and a clear heart and listen to what could be there for you and be okay with it. What’s the worst that can happen?

Adriann Negreros: Pretty good advice, another set of incredible lines, forget the ceiling step outside. It seems like you’ve practiced this before.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: No, hey, it’s just real. It’s so real. And I try to I always say model the behavior you aspire, just don’t talk about it, be about it. And so for me, what I’m sharing with all of you is what I’ve experienced. It’s how I make sure that I’m always stepping into larger, larger containers and not feeling that I’m limited. And sometimes especially as a woman as a black woman, those limitations can feel heavy. And that’s when you have to say when people are are saying things or maybe marginalizing you, you have to do like when you receive something in the mail and it’s not addressed to you, you return that to sender. And so if people are coming from the field, or not me or do not define me, I’m not gonna own that. I’m just gonna politely just return that back to sender, because that is not who I am. And that means I’m limitless. And that means if I have to step outside, that’s what I will do.

Adriann Negreros: Incredible, one last question for you Thasunda that we’ve asked this to all the speakers this year.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Right.

Adriann Negreros: In this challenging moment, in these tough times, what principles do you rely on as a leader?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Wow, I mean, first my faith is really important to me. My character, knowing that it’s okay to not be okay. Knowing that this too shall pass, knowing that in our vulnerability can be the unlock to possibility. And I think as a leader, this notion of being curious, not just from a business sense, but I wanna know you. I wanna know what motivates you, I want to know what makes your heart heavy. Because as a leader, I think if I can show my vulnerability then I create permission for you to show yours. And it’s in that vulnerability that allows us to take a breath and that allows us to no longer wear the mask. Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote a poem, 1913 where the mask, we can take the mask off. And then we can really focus on the work. And I think that’s so important when I think about leadership principles, character, curiosity, being vulnerable, authentic. And just knowing that the goal for me is to be the best version of myself. And that’s what I expect for everyone else. And in order for you to be the best version of you had to create space for you to do that, unapologetically.

Adriann Negreros: Thank you so much, Thasunda for chatting right now. It’s been a complete pleasure. What a wonderful message to leave with. We have two student questions and I know my classmates are incredible. So, they’re gonna raise the bar even higher. I’m excited to invite them to join me.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Great.

Lauren: Hi.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Hi.

Lauren: I can’t believe I’m talking to you right now, this is amazing. I worked at JPMorgan Chase in operations for the last three and a half years, so I know you as T.

Lauren: Thank you, T, for joining, I’m so excited. Okay, so we talked about this already a little bit, and so maybe I’II position this question a little bit more tactically. But one of the things that has always struck me have been your anecdotes about leading people of all levels in an enormous institution. And the way you’ve done that is to build those relationships in the mailroom etc. So I am pivoting to a career in hospitality, which is a big shift from operations at JP Morgan. And as someone who’s seen you model this behavior so well, I’m wondering what tactics you could share about how to build that credibility with those folks when your intention levels are different and your perspectives are different, but you’re all critical to the work. So yeah, I’d just love your thoughts and thanks again.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Well, first of all, thank you so much Lauren, right? Is it Lauren? Okay, great. Well, it’s so great to meet you, Lauren. First I would say congratulations on deciding that you wanna pivot. That’s not easy. I can feel it. You’re like, I don’t know, I don’t know, but you really wanna do it. Here’s what you need to remember Lauren, show it with your ownable assets. What makes you special is that you have your own story and your own narrative. You worked in operations, so you understand process. You transfer that into hospitality. That is really important. The process, the change management, the different roles, what people do, and how that impacts the presentment of ultimately whatever that is. You have that muscle and so you may need to just be reminded that the work that you put in over the years is preparing you for this moment.

Understanding the back office and understanding how important it is, is so critical in hospitality. Because you’ll see the people that are cleaning the rooms or preparing the meals or doing the landscaping. You understand that they are so important to the customer facing part of the equation. And then lastly, bet on yourself and show up with your character. Show up with your intellectual curiosity. Show up with your humble spirit. Show up with that smile. Show up with that level of I don’t know anything about it, but I’m so excited. Show up with all of that. Because that gets that expression, that look you just gave, that’s what’s warming. That’s what’s inviting. And ultimately that’s where your magic lies. That’s where your superpower lies.

Lauren: Thank you so much, I feel so known in two minutes.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: It’s real though, it really is real. So, good luck to you.

Lauren: Thank you.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: You’ll be fantastic.

Lauren: Thank you.

Chelsea: Hi, T.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Hi.

Chelsea: Assume that you are here with us. Like Chloe, I am in awe and I’m just so grateful to see you on the screen. So I really appreciate that. I actually have to give credit to this question to one of my classmates who inspired it, Danielle. And so my question is like sometimes if there is a CEO who is from an underrepresented background or who is a woman, Q&As, fireside chats, etc often focused on that identity. And I mean, we’ve talked about this already today. And these questions are important. But I also imagine that it can be somewhat draining to have to answer what it’s like to be a black woman in your role sometimes, and other CEOs don’t have to do that. So I’m curious to hear from you like, what question do we not ask you enough? And if you’re willing, could you answer that question for us?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Wow, what a powerful question you said Danielle gave you that? Well shout out to Danielle and to Chelsea for asking it, let me attack it in a couple of ways. First and foremost, the reality is being black has shaped so much of who I am. It has. And the reality is, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to talk about being black or being a woman because I’m trying to get the world to get proximate to who we are. So that we can change the outcome and the narrative of what is possible and to show that we belong. And so I am more than happy to carry the burden if you will, because it’s not for them, it’s for you. That’s what it’s for.

And I know that so many women and so many black women still feel invisible. And so if I chose to ignore that question, or chose to just talk about return on capital or SBA, or earnings, you would still not feel like you’re being seen. And so I just think it’s important to know your audience. And for me, I’m very confident in my ability to perform, you can check the receipts. But what I really want to make sure is that Chelsea can have a shot. And when there’s more than just Roz and I leading a fortune 500 as two black women, then maybe I won’t need to answer those questions. And to be quite honest, if the question wasn’t asked, I would bring it up. Because I need to make sure that more women and more women of color and more people of color can understand that their voice is necessary and required. And I cannot water down our history. I cannot water down our story. And the more than I’m okay bringing that narrative into the boardrooms and into corporate America, from my hair, braid straight to my changing of glasses to raising a black boy.

All of those narratives are important so I’m not gonna water it down and in fact, I’m gonna make sure that those stories continue to be stated. Now if you wanna ask what questions people don’t ask that I wish that they would ask me more of. I would just say more about purpose, because again, my performance speaks for itself.

You could not be a leader and not perform, period, end of story. But what I want people to really ask me about is my why, why do I believe I am the one with a privilege of having this seat and therefore I get to share more about purpose and impact.

And my purpose is to inspire others. And if I can share more about who I am unapologetically, then hopefully I can inspire more people, more women, more underprivileged or the voiceless to see that they have a shot. And they have a shot unapologetically though, so hopefully that answers the question.

Chelsea: Definitely does and a very, very powerful answer. Thank you so much, really appreciate it.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Thank you, thank you. Such a great question.

Adriann Negreros: Fantastic question. I’m so fortunate my classmates are incredible, as you’ve just seen in this small snippet. Lucky place to be in here. So Thasunda, we have a lightning round to close. I hope you’re prepared for this.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yes, maybe not but we’ll see.

Adriann Negreros: We’ll see. All right. I know you’re a basketball family. So we’ll start very simple. Jordan or LeBron?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: LeBron.

Adriann Negreros: Okay, I like the decisiveness.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: I mean, I had to, right. The speaker bringing brilliance to the boardroom, I love LeBron, but definitely love Jordan as well, so.

Adriann Negreros: Okay, Kim Mulkey’s 40-0 Lady Bears from 2011/2012 or the men’s national championship team from this past year?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: This March madness was crazy.

Adriann Negreros: It was great.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: You know, wow. Both I mean, I know I have to choose, but my gosh. Both amazing runs.

Adriann Negreros: That’s fair. I was very happy to see Baylor beat Gonzaga personally, but for another day.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Yeah.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Another day.

Adriann Negreros: Better album: Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love or Jay Z’s Watch the Throne?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: I’m all about to B hive. So, Dangerously in Love I love it.

Adriann Negreros: Okay, should we pay off student debt now or invest in our retirement savings?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Both, work to pay down your debt and always stay invested.

Adriann Negreros: Awesome. Last one, there’s no choice, we just need your answer. So there’s a bunch of x consultants and bankers and folks that love their points listening right now. How should we spend those chase points? What’s the best way to do it?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: I mean, I’m all about travel and hopefully we’ll be able to unlock that and get back traveling all around the world. Travel.

Adriann Negreros: Where’s the first place you’re going after this all?

Thasunda Brown Duckett: I mean, I’ve traveled to Texas. So, I’ve had a little bit of travel and I can’t wait to go back. But most importantly, I want it, I can’t wait to get my kids on a plane to continue to see the world. All around the world. I just think it’s really important.

Adriann Negreros: That’s great, again thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been absolutely incredible.

Thasunda Brown Duckett: Well, I need to just close by saying thank you. You have been a phenomenal interviewer, you had me smiling. I’m just looking at you and looked at all the bios. You all are quite impressive. The future is bright because you all have made a lot of great choices. And clearly being part of the Stanford family. I can’t wait to see what you all do next, as a family as a village, if you will. But remember to always reach for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll be among the stars and your future is pretty bright.So thank you so much for the time.

Adriann Negreros: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Adriann Negreros of the MBA class of 2021. Lily Sloane composed our theme music and Kelsey Doyle produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website www.gsb.stanford.edu and follow us on social media@stanfordgsb.

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